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WSO x Kilter: program notes

News 2021-10-07

WSO x Kilter: program notes

String Quartet no. 8 in c minor, movement III

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Overcome with sadness and anxiety induced by political pressures, Shostakovich wrote his eighth string quartet in just three days in 1960. He had recently succumbed the Soviet government’s insistence that he join the Communist Party and was suffering the effects of a long term chronic illness that affected the use of his right hand, forcing him to give up playing the piano.

Shostakovich originally composed this quartet as an epitaph, believing his death was near and writing to a friend, “I started thinking that if some day I die, nobody is likely to write a work in memory of me, so I had better write one myself.”

This work is one of the rawest reflections of the composer as an individual and was composed at a time when he constantly felt the struggle of needing to blend in to appease the Soviet government. The third movement of this quartet features his monogram, DSCH, put into musical notation – D, Eb, C, B (the reoccurring use of his musical monogram appears in many of his later works).

You can also hear the chamber symphony version of this piece in it’s entirety on October 30 at Of Our New Day Begun: Mozart, Shostakovich & Thomas.

Fantasiestucke, movement II “Serenade”

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912)

British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor came from a highly musical family and started learning violin from his grandfather at a very young age. Although he began his studies and career as a violinist, by 1896 he had a highly reputable reputation as a composer.

Coleridge-Taylor was deeply inspired by his lineage – his father was a descendant of African-American slaves who settled in Sierra Leone, which was established as a haven for freed slaves. Given his family history, Coleridge-Taylor sought to incorporate traditional African music into the Western classical tradition, similar to Brahms’ incorporation of Hungarian music in his compositions and Dvorak’s use of Bohemian and traditional American folk songs in his music.

The term Fantasiestucke, or “The Fantasy Pieces”, is actually a descriptor of the type of composition, which consists of movements that evoke specific moods and characteristics; the Serenade movement is the most lyrical and contemplative of the five movements.

String Quartet No. 3 in G major, K. 156, movement I (Presto)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Everyone knows that Mozart was a musical prodigy, but few people realize it wasn’t just natural genius – Mozart’s father, Leopold, was a dedicated music teacher and rumoured to be a stern task master (that being said, Mozart did have an immense amount of musical talent and was a very quick learner).

Mozart began his musical studies around age three, and greatly admired his older sister, Maria Anna, who was a gifted musician and composer in her own right. Their only teacher in their youth was their father, who instructed Maria Anna on harpsichord and piano, and Mozart on harpsichord, piano, and violin. Leopold took them on several tours of Europe to showcase their talents, during which Mozart met many notable musicians and composers. Interacting with such a wide range of musical styles and people greatly influenced Mozart’s own compositions and helped to broaden his musical horizons.

When he was sixteen, Mozart and his father left for a tour of Italy, and it was in Milan that he composed six of his earliest string quartets known as the “Milanese Quartets”. These quartets are generally “lighter” sounding music, reflecting the polished and rational stylistic elements of the Enlightenment era.

String Quartet No. 12 in F major, “American”, mvmt II

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)

The “American Quartet” is the second composition the Czech composer wrote during his brief time in America (the first was his well-known ninth symphony, nicknamed “From the New World”, which the WSO will be performing in December). He composed the string quartet in just sixteen days while vacationing in Spillville, Iowa, which was home to a large Czech immigrant community, and stated that his goal for the quartet was to “write something for once that was very melodious and straightforward”.

Dvořák profoundly appreciated the African-American music he discovered while in America and spent a considerable amount of time with Harry T. Burleigh, a Black baritone and composer who sang many prominent spirituals for Dvořák. In turn, he wrote music based on the musical elements and melodies of these spirituals. Some listeners claim that the second movement of the “American” string quartet is based on one of these spirituals – whether or not that is true, the movement is one of the most hauntingly beautiful yet melancholy pieces of music you will ever encounter.

Five Folksongs in Counterpoint, mvmt II, “Clementine”

Florence Price (1887-1953)

Florence Price is recognized as one of the most prominent American female composers of the 20th century. Her First Symphony was performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933 and was the first work by a Black and female composer that the orchestra performed.

Price studied piano, organ, and composition in university, and spent much of her career performing and teaching in addition to composing. Her compositional style incorporates many elements that were prominent in African American music at the time, with the composer noting that “in all types of African American music, rhythm is of preeminent importance”. The second movement in Five Folksongs in Counterpoint, titled “Clementine”, displays a lighter, more modern take on the famous folk melody.


Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992)

Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla revolutionized the traditional tango by bringing elements of classical music and jazz into the genre. From a young age Piazzolla listened to his father’s record collection, which consisted of tango orchestras, jazz, and classical music. In his earlier adulthood, Piazzolla was accomplished bandoneonist (instrument similar to an accordion) and performed with one of the greatest tango orchestras of all time in Buenos Aires. He eventually earned enough income to pay for composition lessons with the renowned composer Alberto Ginastera (also from Argentina), beginning Piazzolla’s foray into composing in the more classical style.

Oblivion is one of Piazzolla’s most popular works, and is considered in the traditional style of tango in contrast to some of his jazzier compositions. As one review of the piece states, Oblivion conveys a “whispered sadness” and “atmospheric” tone.

Spiegel Im Spiegel

Arvo Part (1935- )

Arvo Part is one of the most celebrated living composers. Born in Estonia, Part began his musical journey at an early age by experimenting on his family’s piano and was writing music by his teenage years.

Part is known for his own unique style of composition, which he refers to as “tintinnabuli”, which roughly translates to “like the ringing of bells”. Spiegel Im Spiegel is one of the most famous representations of this style – it has simple harmonies and is unchanging in tempo, and specifically features triads, or three notes that are the basic structure of a musical chord. The work is stunning in its simplicity, providing a moment for contemplation and spiritual grounding.

In My Blood

Arranged by Vitamin String Quartet

An arrangement of Shawn Mendes’ “In My Blood” as featured in the popular Netflix series, Bridgerton.

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